Mike Nichols’ column in Monday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Dec. 15) claims to set the “facts” about so-called right-to-work laws. Let’s examine just how “factual” his words are.

He reflects on his own personal dislike of the requirement in union shop agreements that all workers join the union and tells of his own refusal to join the Newspaper Guild while a reporter for the newspaper.

Paying for the costs that a union shoulders in representing all workers on a job site is an expense that all workers on that job site should share. It is the union after all that bargains for the pay scale that all workers in the unit enjoy . . . as well as the health insurance plan, the holidays, the vacation schedule, etc. Most importantly, the union is there to assure that workers were treated fairly on the job so that everyone gets equal pay for equal work and no one can be fired on the whim of the boss.

It’s hard to believe Nichols claim that unions don’t affect the pay and benefits of workers. Does Nichols feel that the benefits he got on the job came out of the goodness of the management of the Journal Company? It’s a feature of our free enterprise system that an employer seeks to get the most work it can from the fewest number of employees at the least cost.

Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in July, 1935, giving workers the right to unionize and to bargain collectively. Many economists say the NLRA might have been the most effective of all New Deal laws in helping to move the country out of the Great Depression by putting more money in the coveralls of workers, thus helping businesses grow with more paying customers.

Employer health insurance – now standard among all companies – came into existence in the 1940s at the insistence of labor union demands at a time when pay increases were restricted by wartime controls.

My own personal proof of the power of unions came on my first week on the job as a reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1957 when the paper was owned by the Hearst Corporation. The newsroom steward for the Newspaper Guild introduced himself and quickly solved an issue concerning my first weekly pay check. I never forgot that act of support.

I recall bumping into my Journal Company counterparts on news assignments and they would ask how our union negotiations were going. It was common knowledge at the time that the Journal would equal or exceed whatever increase we bargained, obviously just to keep the Guild out of the Journal workplace. Personally I benefited when the Guild bargained a pay differential for those of us who had to work weird night-time shifts (mine ran ‘til 2:30 a.m.).

Nichols is right on one point: he didn’t want to support legislative and political causes with which he did not agree. The fact is that he wouldn’t have had to pay for those costs. Under federal law, he had a right to withhold those portions of his dues that do not cover the costs of the representing him in his job. It should be noted here that federal law prohibits the use of dues money for political reasons.

Finally, most workers are hardly able to bargain for themselves; of course, some are clever enough – or admittedly talented enough – to win the boss’ favor. Most of us, however, may not be so lucky, and this is where worker solidarity is critical. It is striking that many of the leaders of our professional athletic unions tend to be among the already highest paid and honored of their sports. Yet, they realize that they will benefit in the long run from supporting the welfare of the whole team; how good can a quarterback be when the lower-paid grunts of the offensive line aren’t playing well?

As Nichols suggested, let’s indeed look at the facts. I highly doubt that Nichols’ Wisconsin Public Research Institute – which the Journal Sentinel should have noted is a conservative think tank – is the group for which to rely upon for such facts.

(Kenneth A. Germanson is a retired union official and president emeritus of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. He worked at the Milwaukee Sentinel from 1957 to 1962.)

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